Why Do We Love The Little Mermaid?

Now that we’ve all got this whole rhetoric thing together, what do we talk about? What do we question first?

Well in full, grandiose style, we’re starting out with a big hitter: Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

Starting out with a funny thing to help explain things better is optimal, I’ve found. So think about that running Ariel joke on the internet where people say, “You know you’ve grown when Ariel says “I’m 16 years old! I’m not a child anymore!” and you agree with Triton”. That’s about where we’re going with this. So the thing we’re tackling is the new discussion that is cropping up as the children who grew up with The Little Mermaid start becoming adults: why does our protagonist, Ariel, never learn goddamn anything and seem stubborn? And stemming from that, what makes The Little Mermaid good regardless of that large, glaring, tremendous flaw?

Well as one of the kids who grew up with the movie and then found themselves hating it for a brief stint before talking to a film-junkie friend, I’m going to question just that. Why do we love The Little Mermaid even though Ariel is a needy, emotional teen who doesn’t really learn anything by the end?

So before we jump in there, we’ll need to talk about a minor rhetorical concept: static characters vs. dynamic character. A static character is a character who doesn’t change, but is used to move plot along or portray an idea or something of a similar sort. On the other end, a dynamic character is one who goes through a great inner change in perspective or outlook by the end of the story.

Now, by these definitions Ariel is clearly a static character representing rebellious teens. Therefore, I got upset. How can a story work well with no good protagonist going through a change? That’s when my aforementioned savvy film-friend swept in: It wasn’t Ariel that changed. It was her father. He is our dynamic protagonist.

Mind blown.

Of course, I’ve just thrown a big idea at you so I’m totally going to explain why this is such a cool concept and way to look at the story that will restore your faith in its importance and greatness.

Don’t worry, not here to nerd-splain everything to you like an un-asked for teacher. This is for my sake as much as yours. If I don’t get to explain all this jazz I’m out of a super-fun blogging stint so please, let me teach it to you with my lame-nerdy relishment and humor.

Off of the selfish tangent now. Back to the point.

There is a complete genius of this outlook on The Little Mermaid that makes the movie so much more intelligent, predicating on the ideas behind the meme I mentioned earlier. The movie has a perfect combination of meaningful adult appeal while also having great appeal for children.

You see, we agree with Ariel so much as children because all we want is all our dreams to come true. We want everything that sounds like the perfect life for us to happen. So Ariel, dreaming of the human world and later, love, and getting all of it in the end is a perfect wish-fulfillment for blooming adolescents. And it has the elements of conflict with adults, which is almost inevitable as a child, but then also the adult letting you go for your dreams, which gives a child more confidence and strength in their convictions. Ariel is the perfect epitome of an adolescent, dreaming of more than what reality tells them and be willing to do anything for those dreams.

Then Trition, our dynamic protagonist, struggles with the unusual dreams of his daughter. He represents almost every adult or parent, believing they “know better” for adolescents. But his violent vehemence for all the things his daughter loves only pushes her further away. And it’s not until the end, when he realizes the daughter he loves can never be happy without those dreams, that he grows, accepts her as an individual/young adult, and they understand and love each other more than ever before.  

And now to the evidence.

So, part one. For my evidence, assume Eric is more of a physical representation of all of Ariel’s hopes and dreams. Let’s be honest, there isn’t much substance to him as a character, so it makes sense for him to more be a beautiful representation than too much of a reality. And Ariel having to fight for her dreams (IE get him to kiss her even without all her possible resources) is her representation of a teen having to fight the lack of adult support or adult income to achieve what she wants more than anything else. But you know, without full resources and support, it’s really hard to get anything you want and work towards, hence why she loses Eric once. Yet once she gets more support and help, and eventually the final support of her father, she achieves her dreams (in the scenario, Eric).

My point basically is that The Little Mermaid is less of a romance and more of a story of teenage struggle to achieve dreams and the hard relationship between a blossoming young adult and their parent(s). Note, the title is The Little Mermaid while specific love stories, like Beauty and the Beast, are titled as such. It’s not The Little Mermaid and The Prince for a reason.  

Just try to think back. How many scenes did it go back to Triton to express his feelings about everything? We saw his rage at her defiance, his sadness missing her and wanting to find her, his melancholy acceptance that she never will be happy without her dreams. The only solo Eric scenes are for exposition, plot movement, or to talk about being with Ariel or not. The whole story is truly, really, about Ariel’s fight for her dreams and her relationship with Triton.

And finally the best evidence I could ever give. The last line of dialogue for the whole movie doesn’t involve Eric, even though the end scene is the wedding. The final words spoken, minus song singing, is Ariel and Triton reconciling, them embracing, and Ariel saying “I love you, Daddy”.

It’s crazy how it seems like our romantic lens of the movie can sometimes distract from the real movie below. I know that most of my life I thought of it as a romance, and the older I grew the more disenchanted I got the more I realized how it wasn’t very romantic and it barely seemed like a strong love story. I don’t know if it was me growing up in the society we have, where girls are all little princesses who love romances and boys are firemen with action stories, but it definitely deeply affected how I looked at the film for a large chunk of my life.

But after a lot of thought, it wasn’t a romance movie. It never was a story where the romance was the main point.

The Little Mermaid is a brilliant movie that walks the line between adolescent dreams and adult acceptance that all things grow and change, even if you don’t want them to. Especially your children and those you love. It has those great achieved dreams for dreaming kids, but then those important lessons for the adults watching, holding their kid’s hands. It’s so much more than you might think.

Everything’s a little more interesting when looked at a little differently, right?


Stephanie Marceau

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